Latest News & Press

Precious Little Gems 2020

Published: 20th April 2021

Each year the Sheffield Assay Office offers a commission opportunity to emerging silversmiths in their second year of the Starter Studio Programme for Designer Silversmiths and Jewellers at Yorkshire Artspace. This year the panel, made up of independent silversmith, Bob Lamb, Jeweller, Ben Friend and representatives from Yorkshire Artspace, Museums Sheffield and Sheffield Assay Office, selected three designs presented by the current participants Abigail Asher, Helena Russell and Holly Clifford.

The brief for 2019/20 was to create a piece of work that would push their own making abilities. The brief asked the participants to think about scaling up the design and making more than one piece, just in the event they were asked to make 20 pieces of the same design, how would they rise to the challenge? The panel were not to be disappointed all three participants gave excellent presentations in December 2019 and their design pitches showed stunning examples of creativity. Abigail designed a set of napkin rings all depicting elements of industrial Sheffield, Helena created an interchangeable stackable candlestick holder and Holly designed a silver cruet set featuring her signature eco resin and an intricate contour map of Sheffield. All of the pieces will go on display at Sheffield Museums, Millennium Gallery when the museum reopens in May, so keep an eye on the individual organisations websites and Instagram.

Speaking of the commissions, Rachael Dodd, Programme Manager at Yorkshire Artspace said; ‘At times during this very challenging year we wondered whether it would be possible to bring the Precious Little Gems commissions to completion, so we are especially thrilled that these pieces will finally go on public display during 2021. They more than ever represent a huge amount of dedication and creative blood sweat and tears from the next generation of talented silversmiths in the city - Abigail Asher, Holly Clifford & Helena Russell. Yet despite the delays and challenges that the COVID pandemic presented, it’s truly wonderful to reveal these objects of beauty that are testament to the resilience of human condition and the need for creativity to sustain us in difficult times’ 

But whilst you cannot see these wonderful commissions in person, let us share some of the makers’ thoughts about their time on the programme and their commissions with you to whet your appetite.

Abigail Asher – Rings for England


Copyright Abigail Asher.

‘I am very pleased with how things are turning out, and I’m relieved to say we are getting closer to the final stages. I can’t wait to see the pieces finally on display at Millennium Gallery and eventually used by Sheffield Assay Office’ - Abigail Asher.

Helena Russell - The Multifarious Candlestick Holder

Copyright credit Jerry Lampson.

‘This commission gave me the freedom to expand my practice by experimenting with new designs. I wanted to make a piece which was a development from my own style but to evolve it into something new, to challenge myself, so from this I designed the Multifarious Candlestick Holder.

Inspired by another piece of mine, the Inro container, I created this piece to be versatile and to give multiple display options. With the combination of stacking components and patinated copper, this piece was true to my style but also incorporated a nod to Sheffield and the Sheffield Assay Office by adding a hand-pierced 9ct gold Tudor Rose.

A combination of traditional and contemporary silversmithing techniques were used to make this piece, including patination. Patination is a process I commonly use within my work to create an array of different colours and patterns on the surface of the metal, for this particular piece I created a blue and green muffled effect on the copper. This was achieved by creating a chemical mixture and applying it to the metal while it was hot, this mixture “sticks” to the surface and instantly turns the pink copper into varied shades of greens and blues. This process is repeated all over until the desired colour was achieved and then left to cool and finally sealed with Jade oil.

Due to the first lockdown in 2020 the commission was put on hold and the deadline set back, I decided that my best option was to leave my workshop at Yorkshire Artspace and set up a bench at home. Due to the down size in equipment and not being able to work in the same scale I normally do, I was unable to continue with the commission at the time. This was very frustrating for me and once I did return to my workshop, it made me lose confidence in myself. However with the support from Yorkshire Artspace, Sheffield Assay Office, the technicians who helped me and of course my fellow peers in the Starter Studio I was able to get back to it and finish the long-awaited commission. I now cannot wait to see it on display and share it with you’.

Holly Clifford - Sheffield Contour Map Condiment Container


Copyright credit Mark Howe. Spoons featured in the photograph by Rebecca Joselyn.

'Back in January 2020 I began work on the ‘Precious Little Gems’ commission. The pandemic hit shortly after and the UK went into lockdown 1.0, meaning I downed tools and retreated to home, leaving the piece only half completed, with the April 2020 deadline abandoned until further notice.

At university, I made a few small lidded pots and since moving to Yorkshire Artspace in 2018 I’ve tried to make the most of the awesome support and tools in the workshop, making a range of slightly larger, but still ‘small-scale’ vessels with vibrant eco-resin lids. However, to make a functional piece of large-scale (I imposed this specification on myself!) silverware was something I hadn’t really done before, making the commission opportunity both an exciting & nerve wracking prospect. You might not be aware that I also have another side to my practice with my ‘Contour Map Collection’, where I create bespoke hand-cut metal map wall pieces & jewellery featuring the topography of clients’ chosen locations. For a long time, the idea of finding a way to blend the ideas & aesthetics from this work with my colourful, eco-resin art jewellery style had been playing at the back of my mind. This commission seemed to pose the perfect opportunity for me to bring them to life.

I knew that I wanted to create a piece which required a lid. After much deliberation, I settled on giving the humble ‘condiment container’, or ‘cruet set’ a contemporary twist.

My initial design sketches were spherical, 13cm in diameter and only 5cm tall containing 3 simple spun silver dishes for condiments, covered by a leafy green eco-resin lid with a large silver contour map of Sheffield.

My intention was to create something unique, to truly celebrate the region; a striking piece of silver tableware showcasing the topography of Sheffield and its suburbs. The vivid green eco-resin lid underneath the silver map contains layers of hand paintwork reflecting Sheffield’s status as one of the UK’s leafiest cities. The wooden inlay fashioned for the dishes to sit in was intended to be made from an old lignum vitae wood chuck from a metal

spinners workshop in the city. Lignum Vitae is an amazing wood; its name means ‘tree of life’ in Latin and it’s the most dense & hardest wood known (which is why it was so often used for chucks – the form that the metal would be pushed onto whilst spinning at high speed). It also has an incredibly beautiful grain, making it a precious addition to my design, whilst also up-cycling a piece of Sheffield’s industrial heritage.

The initial presentation of my design caught the eye of the Chairman of the Assay Office, Charles Turner. In 2024, Charles will be made the ‘Master Cutler’ of the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire and it is tradition that a gift is given to the Company, hallmarked in Sheffield that year, ensuring that the collection has a handmade silver piece from each year since 1773 (the year the Sheffield Assay Office was founded). So, after my piece has spent time in the collections as the Assay Office & Museums Sheffield, he then intended it to be his addition to the Cutlers Company’s archive as his offering. But, he had a few inspired suggestions to the design before we went ahead…

It got a whole lot bigger! The diameter jumped from 13cm to 20cm, hugely magnifying the impact of the piece visually and turning it into a real table centrepiece. This allowed for much more room inside the container, so another dish was added. To connect the piece to the area even more, we decided to add hand engraved place names around the silver edge, relating to their positions on the map lid, reminiscent of a trig point in the Peaks.

Unfortunately, the increase in scale meant that I could no longer source an old chuck from the spinners that would be large enough for the inlay. Luckily, with The Persistence Works studios filled to the brim with incredible makers, I was able to visit the woodworker John Thatcher who presented me with a gorgeous piece of English Walnut and whipped up what I needed in no time.

I’d like to give special thanks to Ben Friend & Robert Lamb (Bob) who both assisted during the making of this piece. Bob (one of Sheffield’s most respected silversmiths, recently awarded a British Empire Medal for services to the Preservation of Traditional Skills) was especially key in this piece turning out to be a success. His guidance & expertise was truly indispensable!'

The finished piece:

'Hand-built from 0.9mm sterling silver sheet, the base sits perfectly flat thanks to Tony Morton (Sheffield’s last remaining ‘Hammerman’) and is detailed with locations & features of the region, from Dronfield in the South, The Porter Brook River in the West, Chapeltown in the North and Ulley in the East. Each detail carefully hand-engraved by Malcolm Marsden (the last apprenticed engraver in the city).

The Sheffield contour map is hand-pierced (cut using a jeweller’s saw) from sterling silver sheet, tube-riveted (a type of ‘cold’ connection) to the eco-resin disk that forms the lid. The eco-resin lid was a real labour of love, and after multiple failed attempts at making my own bubble-free mould (impossible for this design without a vacuum chamber) I contacted ‘Mr Resin’ for a custom made silicone mould, which worked a treat. The resin was poured in several layers, each one encasing vibrant green brushstrokes of acrylic paint, and also depicting the main rivers of the city.

The oval handle holds the hallmarks for the piece and acts a clamp, bringing the main components of the lid together along with the tube rivets. The four sterling silver bowls were spun by David Allison and gilded by Francis Howard. All the silverwork was buffed & polished to perfection by Gary Jackson.

As you can see, this was a real team effort in which I called upon the help of a number of experienced and skilled tradespeople in Sheffield. It struck me that when you see images of complex pieces of work like this, a breakdown of who contributed to its creation apart from the named maker is rarely given. It’s sometimes the case that the maker is the sole craftsperson to work on the item, but in most cases that’s just not what happens. It used to be that people would often practice one niche skill their whole lives, to perfect it, whether that be engraving, polishing or stone setting, etc. Nowadays, there’s only a handful of these

people, trained via apprenticeships who are left. This number is shrinking every year as they retire and the use of machinery in their place becomes more prevalent. Having neither the level of training in these processes I required for my design, nor the desire to use technology over hands, I want to ensure that I give full credit to the wonderfully talented people in the trade who helped me complete this piece.

Holly said ‘I am so grateful to the YAS Starter Studio programme for building such a strong connection over the years with the Sheffield Assay Office. The PLG commission is such a career boosting opportunity at this early stage in our practices, and alongside the free hallmarking we receive throughout the two years really helps to solidify our position in the silversmithing community. I personally have felt that the whole process has helped me to find new angles for my work to explore, which I possibly wouldn't have ever explored otherwise - certainly not to this level. From pitching my design to the panel to the new techniques required to make the final piece, the have found the process challenging, but hugely rewarding!’

Ashley Carson, Assay Master here at Sheffield Assay Office said; ‘Helena, Holly and Abbie have successfully complete two years on the programme and we have seen them and their work develop and flourish over this period. The Precious Little Gems 2020 commissions are wonderfully creative and testament to their hard work and dedication to their practice. I hope the display of the pieces brings interest from the public and future commissioning opportunities and thank you all for the commissions you have designed and made for us’. 

To find out more about their work take a look at their webpages:

 Abigail Asher -

Holly Clifford -

Helena Russell - Helena Russell Silversmith

Yorkshire Artspace -

Sheffield Museums -

The Sheffield Assay Office was established in 1773, under an Act of Parliament and today the company assays and hallmarks the precious metals - silver, gold, platinum and palladium. Sheffield Assay Office is one of only four UK assay offices who all work to uphold the Hallmarking Act of 1973 and continue to ensure consumer protection for customers purchasing precious metals.

To find out more about the whole range of services offered by Sheffield Assay Office, such as our hallmarking and analytical services, please email us at or complete the contact form on our website at,

Sign up here to all the latest news from Sheffield Assay Office direct to your inbox

« Back to all news

Contact Us